The Road from Washington to Riyadh (Part Three)

Although we had only been in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a matter of days, I was already captivated by this mystifying and exotic country where I had been cordially greeted by Saudi businessmen and government officials alike, and even had several job interviews lined up.  It was mid-February 2000, and my husband, Bishara, was in Saudi Arabia with the U.S.-Saudi Business Council attending a series of meetings to explore joint venture possibilities between U.S. and Saudi firms.  I was an adjunct member of the team, only in the Kingdom as a result of the Herculean efforts of my husband who knew I just had to see, experience, and ultimately live and work in this enigmatic country.  Our adventure began with a nearly 20 hour journey from Washington, DC to Riyadh, where I had been surprised to find a modern city with skyscrapers, cafes, and upscale malls crisscrossing the city.  I had been even more astounded by the warm reception I received from members of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce, venue for a preliminary meeting, where as the lone woman in the room I was offered a seat at the conference table, access to a microphone, and swayed to inaugurate the meeting by conveying my early impressions of Saudi Arabia.  I felt relieved, yet disconcerted, to experience similar receptions in the many meetings I attended in Riyadh with the U.S.-Saudi Business Council.

Me & Bishara in Saudi Arabia. (February 2000)

After my enlightening and intriguing stint in the capital city of Riyadh, I was anxious to visit and experience our second destination within the Kingdom, the province of Dhahran on the east coast of the country. Dhahran sat alongside the iridescent, calm waters of the Arabian Gulf. There we visited several leading Saudi companies and governmental organizations that included the Tamimi Group, Chamber of Commerce, steel companies, and a high-tech hospital in Al Khobar. At each destination my confidence and sense of self became further fortified as my hosts encouraged me to openly express my thoughts and opinions.  On countless occasions, in rooms resplendent with lavish and colorful furniture, oversized paintings of Bedouin scenes encased in gold framing, I was stupefied to find myself surrounded by a cluster of gentlemen preoccupied with my unceasing impartial and frank discussion on our time in Saudi Arabia and our fervent desire to live in the Kingdom. These men, radiant and dignified in their impeccably white starched robes and colorful headscarves, typically kept a comfortable distance, but in these instances would often lean forward intently, hands clasped on their lap, or resting comfortably on the arms of their chair, their resolute eyes focused on me. Onlookers seemed drawn, although with noticeable reserve, to this ongoing repartee between the spirited American woman and the assemblage of their countrymen. One impassioned remark I heard from Saudi businessmenon a number of these occasions related to their concern over women not being permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia.  As one distinguished gentleman rejoined, the growth of the Saudi economy would double if women were allowed to drive.

Bishara on beach in Dammam, Saudi Arabia.

Following our meeting at the Dammam Chamber of Commerce I requested to use the restroom. To my surprise, I was apologetically told that a women’s restroom did not exist in the building. One of the Saudi businessmen attending the meeting at the Chamber, whom I had very briefly met, rushed to my side. The gentleman graciously guided me to the men’s restroom, walked inside with me and pointed to a stall.  Although grateful, I was unsettled and perplexed. The businessman intimated that he would wait outside the stall until I was finished, assuring me that he was my brother.  My mind raced. Was I being foolish for being mindful of my safety in this quiet corner of the government building? I was particularly confounded by his repeated insistence that he was my brother, was this a ruse, or simply small talk?

I was even more astonished by Bishara’s response, or lack of a response. Bishara, normally quite protective of me in most situations, particularly when other men’s unwanted advances are involved, seemed to regard the whole matter quite calmly. Bishara explained that in the Arab world, particularly in professional and business settings, it was critically important for men to treat women as sisters with the utmost respect. This bucked against everything I had heard before going to Saudi Arabia. I was going to find out that there were many layers to the tapestry of the Saudi culture.

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (February 2000)

Our third and final destination was Jeddah, located in the western provinces of the Kingdom, 150 miles west of Mecca, and adjacent to the radiant and impelling Red Sea. Jeddah was a beautiful and delightful city with an extraordinary amalgam of traditional Arabic and contemporary Western architecture, including a scattering of mirrored skyscrapers.  From the window of our chauffeured car, I strained my neck to get a better glimpse and gulped as we approached a roundabout that displayed magnificent and modernistic sculptures of life-size cars jutting out of concrete in incongruous directions. Another roundabout exhibited oversized Bedouin urns spewing water. Westerners seemed to appreciate Jeddah, where there were opportunities to swim, boat and dive in the Red Sea. The coral reefs of the Red Sea, I was told, rivaled those of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.  Jeddah also had fewer restrictions, particularly for women who frequented restaurants and sheesha cafes unaccompanied by men. Women were not afforded this privilege in Riyadh, nor in many other cities in the Kingdom.

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

During a break in between meetings, Bishara and I ambled along the sparkling beach of the Red Sea that straddled the picturesque outline of the Jeddah skyline; our toes caressed by the fine white sand. We were told that there were sections of beach partitioned and earmarked for expatriates, allowing sun worshippers to strip down to as little as bikinis or Speedos. As Bishara pulled out our camera to take a picture of me against the backdrop of the dazzling sea, we were startled and alarmed to see a uniformed gentleman rushing over waving his hands and barking in a blended language of English and Arabic. He forbade us to take photographs; there were Saudi women in the background. Saudi women regularly swam in the sea clothed in their abayes, a sight that would always seem alien to me.  Further down the stretch of beach I stopped in my tracks; there was a camel decked out in a bright red and gold carpet with luxurious tassels over its back being led by a thick knotted rope through a vacant parking lot by a middle-aged man in an off-white tunic. I had hoped to see a camel on our trip to the desert kingdom, although in my daydreams it would be ankle deep in sand with a tent and Bedouin in the background. Bishara, always full of surprises, saw to it to make another fantasy of mine reality.  Arab bargaining is an art full of nuances.  The vendor starts high, you go low.  The vendor makes a slightly higher offer, the customer walks off in a huff, and the vendor eventually relents, calling you back to accept your offer.  Bishara, mindful of the intricate movements of this marketplace dance, approached the man with a proposition.  I watched as Bishara expertly entered into negotiations with the man and within several minutes I was helped aboard the motley quadruped.  Bishara eagerly snapped shots without a hint of opposition from the uniformed officer. I was on top of the world.

Me on camel in Jeddah. (February 2000)

Our last night in Jeddah our driver, most graciously, on his own time and without accepting payment, escorted us to the gold souk (traditional Arab marketplace) where Bishara hoped to buy me a ring to replace my wedding ring and to serve as a reminder of our time in Saudi Arabia. The souk was an intricate maze of small shops made of concrete slabs offering a multitude of goods from spices, Indian silk, pots and pans, and children’s toys, to women’s lingerie and 21 karat gold jewelry. The marketplace teemed with Saudis, other Arab nationals, and a sprinkling of expatriates.  The souk tickled all of the senses. The scent of incense and spices infiltrated the winding cobble stoned alleyways. Sauntering through the mystical hodgepodge we often had to dart from side to side or flatten ourselves against the side of walls to avoid the crush of wheel barrows propelled by decrepit men in turbans laden with every imaginable product or artifact or to dodge the oncoming charge of women and children.  An elderly Saudi man, a roadmap of wrinkles marking his face, tended to cardboard thin saj bread sizzling on a large flat half-dome heated element over a wood block in a corner of the souk. Across from him sat a group of Saudi men on aluminum chairs smoking sheesha. One man rested his bare foot on the edge of the seat of the chair, another stared off into nowhere in particular, plumes of smoke snaked from his nostrils and mouth, while the third companion spoke animatedly, his words peeling off his tongue like rocket fire. Down another maze-like alleyway an array of women in black stood clustered in a tiny shop fondling decadent frilly lingerie, children clutching the edges of their mother’s abayes; South Asian men tending to their queries and purchases.  Women were not allowed to work in the retail industry in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi men had little interest in menial jobs.  The souk was pure enchantment and a staggering assault on my physical and emotional being; the abundance of community and culture in this tangled patchwork was in stark contrast to my more sterile life in Washington.

Me & Bishara in Jeddah. (February 2000)

On the plane trip back home, I turned to Bishara, gushing about our trip and what it ignited in me. My yearning to go to Saudi Arabia had grown from an ember to a flame. Upon returning home, I resumed my daily routine, hoping that my tenure in the urban jungle would be short-lived. With each passing day I wondered how much longer I would be crisscrossing the gloomy subway platforms. Bishara and I endlessly discussed the possibility of starting a new life overseas, and these talks punctuated my drone-like reality. We spent many sleepless nights sharing our uncertainties about giving up our dream home, ending our stable employment with treasured health insurance and retirement plans, and leaving the nearness of our family and friends.

Within several weeks Bishara received a FAX from a sheikh from the Diwan of Saudi Arabia expressing an interest in Bishara’s company executing a joint venture with the sheikh’s company. At this point, Bishara’s boss, unfortunately, had decided against pursuing a partnership with a Saudi company; we were on our own. Bishara conveyed this to the sheikh, but stressed that we were both very interested in securing employment within the Kingdom. Given the employment restrictions that women faced in Saudi Arabia, Bishara asked the sheikh to help find a position for me. The sheikh was most gracious and amenable; two weeks later high level management from King Faisal Specialist Hospital, a well regarded medical institution in Riyadh, contacted us to request my CV. Shortly after, I received an offer to manage a new department created within the hospital. In November 2000, Bishara and I were on a plane back to Saudi Arabia to begin our new adventure.


2 comments on “The Road from Washington to Riyadh (Part Three)

  1. Amazing recount of your adventure in Saudi Arabia. Michele, you have such a unique way of telling a story, of drawing your audience within, and creating a scene in which the reader believes that she is right there with you. To imagine the uncertainty of making a decision to leave the securities of living in a world familiar to you and to move far away! Such an adventurous spirit and yearning for the mysterious and magical life of the unknown! And aha! But to sit on the back of a camel, too! Sounds like a wonderful life!

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